Feb. 29 2012 12:00 AM

Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Freedman shares surprising stories in 'Presidents and Black America'

Let’s see: George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree, threw a dollar across the Potomac, freed the slaves and the rest is history. Or not. 

Eric Freedman, co author of “Presidents and Black America: A Documentary History,” said the history of the presidency is one of “oversimplification and gentrification.” Freedman is an associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his investigative reporting at The Detroit News in 1994.

He and co-author Stephen A. Jones (a former newspaper editor turned history professor at Central Michigan University) are setting the historical record straight not by rewriting history, but rather by digging deeper into the historical record of the presidents’ relationships with African-Americans.

“The history we learned in grade school about the presidents is simplistic,” Freedman said.

Yes, George Washington was the first president to free slaves — his own- — by directing his spouse, Martha, to set the slaves free after her death. The book also details how something as simple as a letter from Washington to black poet Phillis Wheatley thanking her for a poem she wrote about him caused an uproar.

Freedman and Jones, who collaborated on “African Americans in Congress,” went behind the public persona of the presidency to discover the myths about the presidency as it relates to black America.

The authors explored private papers, diaries and letters of all 44 presidents to determine what their real beliefs were and how their actions differed from popular belief.

Lincoln may have the historical record behind him when it comes to freeing the slaves, but the book points out that in debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 race for the Senate, Lincoln said he did not believe in the equality of the races, that he did not believe blacks should serve on juries and that he supported colonization (relocation) for blacks.

It’s also not well known in popular presidential lore that in a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln called for compensation of slave owners. Oh, and about Lincoln freeing the slaves: There’s the minor technicality about it applying only in the areas that the North didn’t control.

Freedman said he and Jones found a “dichotomy between personal viewpoints and political perception.”

He said Woodrow Wilson, who is perceived to be a “principled World War I liberal turned out to be quite a racist.”

They also showed that before becoming president, John F. Kennedy’s record on civil rights was not a match for Richard Nixon’s record.

““We always think of Kennedy as an icon of the left, but JFK was not big on civil rights, until he became president,” Freedman said.

In their book, the authors point out how a turning point for Kennedy may have come just prior to the election when he called Coretta Scott King to talk about her husband Martin Luther King Jr.’s  incarceration in 1960 for participating in a march in Georgia. “Against the advice of his advisers, (JFK) had Bobby Kennedy bail (King) out,” Freedman said.

Freedman said his action may have led to a surge of black voters supporting Kennedy, which helped determine the outcome of the election.

Freedman and Jones have provided more than a recitation of facts and excerpts from memos and letters.

For example, both presidents Reagan and Ford are singled out for their actions during their college sports days. Reagan, while traveling with his Eureka College football team to a game near his own Illinois hometown, found that the local innkeeper wasn’t going to allow two black teammates, William Franklin Burghardt and Jim Rattan, to stay in the hotel. Reagan’s coach said the team would sleep in the bus instead, but the man who would be president had a better idea: Reagan and his two black teammates stayed with Reagan’s parents.

While playing football for the University of Michigan, Jerry Ford, an All-American center, had a similar experience when Georgia Tech threatened to cancel a game with Michigan if the University of Michigan allowed a black player, Willis Ward, on the field.

Ford went to the coaches and basically told them if his friend Ward didn’t play he wouldn’t either. Ward ultimately talked Ford out of his decision and the game went on without Ward, but the book’s authors relate how that single event would be monumental in Ford’s political career.

Freedman said that the vast majority of research for the book was conducted online, looking for what he calls “documents other historians have ignored.”

The authors did spend considerable time in libraries (including the Gerald R. Ford and Herbert Hoover presidential libraries) sorting through boxes in an attempt to “add human faces to the usual litany of places, dates and times,” Freedman said.

The authors also delve into stories we may have heard about, but didn’t fully understand, such as how slaves helped built the White House — which was deeply shocking to Abigail Adams, wife of America’s second president, John Adams — and how even though Theodore Roosevelt dined with Booker T. Washington in the White House the political fallout afterward meant that Washington would never be invited to a meal again by Roosevelt.

The authors also discovered instances in which blacks were almost totally written out of history. Freedman’s personal favorite is the story of “Big” Jim Parker, a former black constable from Georgia, who was present at the assassination of President William McKinley.

“Parker jumped on the crazy anarchist (assassin), but history shows all the heroes are white,” Freedman said.

At $145, the book is clearly being marketed toward an academic audience, but it is begging for a mass-market release, especially considering the background of our 44th president: Although his story is still being told, the authors included a look at President Obama, especially his relationships with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Shirley Sherrod.

Freedman also believes that some of the stories he and Jones discovered should be told in the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in Washington in 2015. 

“It’s the other side of the official story,” Freedman said.